Becoming a Disability Champion: The Additional Needs Adventure Continues!

Church show a brick built church. It has wooden doors. Above the doors is a circle with the words "St Saviour's Sunbury" on it. In front of the building, on the left hand side is a tree.

If you’ve read my blog post ‘Additional Needs Ministry – My Journey So Far’, you’ll know that God started me off on a change of course over ten years ago which lead me to be an Inclusion Champion at our previous church. Since moving churches, I’ve kept the conversation about disability inclusion going and the adventure has continued…

At the beginning of March, I was approached by the vicar of our church and asked whether I would consider becoming the Disability Champion for our church. After spending some time praying about it (and also asking friends to pray), I accepted the role. Now, you might be sitting reading this and reacting a bit like Harry Potter when Hagrid tells him that he’s a wizard – “I’m a what?”. Well, hopefully by the end of this blog, you’ll know more about what a church Disability Champion does.

Why be a Disability Champion?

I believe that being a Disability Champion for a church is an important role, but why does there need to be one? Well, according to Scope, there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK (that’s about 1 in 5 people) and so, if our churches are reflecting the wider society, they will have a similar ratio of disabled people in their congregations. However, in church they can often be overlooked and, sometimes, ignored completely when it comes to being fully involved in the life of a church. This can be down to not knowing what changes might need to be made to enable disabled people to take part rather than deliberately ignoring them. Having a Disability Champion can help to make a church become a more welcoming and inclusive place to be and a place where everyone can belong and share their gifts.

Do you have to be disabled to be a Disability Champion?

Although it undoubtedly helps for a Disability Champion to be disabled, I personally don’t think that you have to be. The most important part of the role is to listen to disabled people and work with them to ensure that barriers are either reduced or removed to make being involved in church life a much more viable option. I myself have a few health difficulties which I hope helps me be more understanding in my new role. They are:

  • Tinnitus – There is constant noise in both of my ears and my hearing changes from day to day depending on how noisy the tinnitus is that day. There are some days when subtitles are my best friend!
  • Joint pain – I damaged my knees as a teenager doing various activity weeks, including Outward Bound, which has resulted in them being painful. My knees have since been joined by ankle, wrist and shoulder pain following several falls. The pain in these joints usually increases during cold or wet weather.
  • Anxiety – I’ve struggled with anxiety since my childhood. I’ve learnt several coping strategies over the years so usually find a way to do things in spite of the anxiety. I don’t always succeed though!
  • Depression – I was diagnosed with depression in 2018. I quickly learnt how much I needed support from friends who prayed, listened and offered help. I also became very grateful for the medication and the cognitive therapy I was prescribed by the doctor. Thankfully, my mental health is much better these days – the therapy has ended and I’m hoping to come off medication soon.

So what does a Disability Champion do?

Listen

As I’ve already said, listening to disabled people in the church is a very important part of the role. This helps to discover any possible barriers that they may face. They are also very likely to have come across similar barriers before in other settings and will already know of ways in which they can be removed or reduced. Disabled people are also the experts in how their disability affects them, so this is another good reason to listen! Also, by listening to disabled people you will discover their passions and gifts. Churches can often miss out on people’s God-given gifts because they forget to listen! As a Disability Champion, I want to encourage disabled people to use their gifts.

Changes

After you’ve listened to the disabled members of the church, it’s time to implement some changes. Change can sometimes meet resistance, so the changes don’t have to be done all at once. Some things can be done reasonably quickly and simply – maybe your church needs some large print Bibles, ear defenders or fidget toys. These can be bought with just a little bit of research to make sure you’ve got something that works for most, if not every, person in the congregation. Something like a sensory room or an inclusion policy would take a lot more planning and research. Making changes to your church so that it becomes more inclusive and welcoming to disabled people is more of a marathon than a sprint, so implement changes, but do them gradually and well. One or two changes done well are so much better than a dozen done too quickly, with very little thought put into them. Badly thought through changes help no one in the end.

Training

Part of my role will be to train others in the church about disability inclusion. Initially, this will be for the Staff and Extended staff teams, but I’m hopeful it will extend to training for the whole church, in time. After all, everyone in the church is likely to meet someone with a disability at a church event at some point and knowing what helps (and more importantly what doesn’t!) is important. Training others in the church is essential so that disability inclusion becomes part of the whole church’s vision. If the Disability Champion is the only person working towards making the church more inclusive, it will leave them in danger of becoming exhausted, burnt out, and unable to get much accomplished.

Liaising

Another part of my role is to liaise with the vicar, churchwardens, and the Operations Director at our church. This is so that they are kept aware of anything that is causing a problem for anyone who is disabled, as well as be informed as to what the church could do to improve the situation. It also gives them the opportunity to inform me of anything that might prevent those improvements from being made at that particular time. Through discussion with them, a way forward will hopefully be found that will satisfy everyone. Also, by liaising with them it means disabled people can have their voices heard by those who oversee the church.

Working with disabled people

There’s a popular saying within the disabled community. It says “Nothing about us, without us”. In other words, don’t do disability ministry to disabled people, but let them be a part of what happens. It’s so important that disabled people are involved with anything that happens within the church and why, like I said at the beginning, it’s important to listen to them. I’m not an expert in disability, although I would count myself an expert on my own health issues and how they affect me. The experts are the disabled people who come to our church. They are the people who will instantly know if what the church is planning will include or exclude them. I’m hoping that as time goes on there will be more inclusion and less exclusion.

This is just some of what will be involved in my new role. I’m sure it will grow over time! I feel very privileged to be asked to do this role and look forward to being part of a church where everyone belongs.

If anything that I’ve written has got you thinking about your church and how it might need to change to become more of a place of welcome, inclusion and belonging for disabled people then do get in touch via the comments. Also, pray about whether your church needs a Disability Champion and who that might be – it might even be you!

Lynnette

Image rights © Lynnette Peckett

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